Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 18 July 2016
WHERE WE STAND
House and Senate conference negotiations on the fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill are underway. Lawmakers on committees that share jurisdiction on some provisions offered their views in a closed-door meeting with the leaders of the Armed Services Committee leaders.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said the meeting provided a “very fruitful discussion,” while his House counterpart, Mac Thornberry, R-Texas said the committees are “off to a good start.”
A letter sent to McCain and Thornberry as well as the top Democrats on the committees, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., from AUSA and its partners in The Military Coalition, outlined the Coalition’s position on many of the provisions contained in the defense policy bills.
The Military Coalition, a consortium of uniformed services and veterans associations, represents more than 5.5 million currently serving, retired and former service members and their families and survivors.
The July 14 letter highlighted several key areas Coalition members thought warranted extra attention.
In accordance with AUSA’s long-standing position with regards to higher end strength – the House bill increases Army end strength by 5000; Army National Guard by 8000 and Army Reserve by 7000. Although Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain fought to increase end strengths in his committee’s bill, he was ultimately defeated. The Coalition urges lawmakers to find a way to adopt the House increase.
AUSA and The Coalition believes that military personnel deserve the same annual raise as the average American’s, as measured by the Employment Cost Index (ECI). The Coalition supports the House-proposed 2.1 percent pay raise for 2017, and again, thanks Sen. McCain for supporting a floor amendment to do the same in the Senate bill. Again, our hope is the final bill will include the full-ECI 2.1 percent raise.
Basic Allowance for Housing
The Senate’s version of the NDAA contains two proposals that would target nearly every service member in the coming years. One would tie BAH to a service members’ actual housing costs rather than the flat-rate stipend. The other would unfairly penalize dual-military couples or those who share housing by dividing BAH by the number of service members in domicile.
Dividing BAH by the number of service members in domicile would unfairly penalize dual-service families of which 80 percent are in our enlisted force. It would also disproportionately target women since approximately 20 percent of women on active duty are in dual-military marriages, compared to 3.7 percent of active-duty men. Recruiting and retention could suffer as well as the culture and environment needed to keep our military open and welcoming to military families.
Military Healthcare Reform
AUSA and TMC has several concerns about both chambers’ proposals. These include:
- No fees should be increased until after improvements in care access and quality have been addressed.
- Both the Senate-proposed fees and House-proposed fees for new entrants are disproportionately high.
- TMC supports grandfathering provisions in the House bill. We do not believe any enrollment fee is appropriate for TRICARE Standard, but the House 2020 enrollment fee provision is preferable to the Senate provision.
- No enrollment fees should be charged for active duty servicemembers or their family members, as the House provision would do for entrants after Jan 1, 2018.
- TMC supports the Senate provision making it explicit there should be no enrollment fee for TFL beyond the Medicare Part B premium.
- Beneficiaries who live in areas where TRICARE has no provider network should have a reduced fee structure. They not only have no network choice, but they cost DoD less than Prime beneficiaries do.
- The PPO network must be broader than the Prime network. It should not be limited to MTF localities, but include other areas where there are large populations of eligible beneficiaries.
- Retired members residing in areas where Prime is offered should be allowed to enroll in Prime, whether or not MTF care is available for them.
- SecDef should have the authority to reduce or eliminate fees for high-value services or medications, but Congress should reserve to itself authority to raise fees and cost-shares.
- Any annual adjustments for any TRICARE fee should be based on the same COLA mechanism as military retired pay. Fees should not grow faster than income does.
Congress leaves town at the end of the week for an extended summer recess. A final bill will not be unveiled until after Labor Day when they return.
Veterans Commission on Care report released
Last week after 10+ months of public hearings, investigation, work, discussion and deliberation the congressionally created Commission on Care issued its final report on how the nation should transform veterans’ health care. To the surprise of many the Commission’s conclusions were on improving and reforming VA healthcare (with a special emphasis its specialty areas of medicine) rather than calling for further privatization. The 15 member Commission were diverse and knowledgeable.
Chairman Nancy Schlichting said: “The report provides bold recommendations that set a foundation for ensuring our nation's veterans receive the care they need and deserve, both now and in the future.” The 308 report included numerous recommendations including:
- establishing high-performing, integrated community-based health care networks
- credentialing community providers to ensure appropriate education, training, and experience;
- allowing veterans to choose primary care providers and/or specialty care providers in the VHA care system;
- retaining existing VA specialty care resources and expertise in fields like spinal cord injury, blind rehabilitation, mental health care, and prosthetics;
- ensuring coordination of care and providing support for veterans;
- improving data collection and management;
- establishing a leadership succession strategy and management system,
- applying best private sector practices; and
- establishing an expert body to develop recommendations for VA care eligibility and benefit design and simplified eligibility criteria.
This included a set term for a new office heading the VHA system (like the 5 year term + succession for the head of the FBI. They also recommended a new Board of Directors that would govern health care within the VA. (It was not clear on first reading how they would react to the VA Executives. Moving away from the independent and varied VISNs the Commission urged a uniform, single system .
While it urged that the VA create new IT systems for the Health care system it did not note that the various IT systems cannot speak to one another within the VA And that that is an urgent need.
As mentioned this is a 308 page report and we will write a more comprehensive article on it as soon as we get to digest the full report. If you feel ambitious yourself just click below and start reading. We would love to talk to you about it.
Ranking Member of House Veterans' Affairs Committee Indicted
The Ranking Member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, Congresswoman Corinne Brown (D-FL) was indicted on fraud charges last Friday.
According to the Washington Post Ranking Member Brown and her chief of staff pleaded not guilty after being indicted on multiple fraud charges and other federal offenses stemming from a fraudulent charity.
Brown is charged with conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, concealing income on financial disclosures that members of Congress are required to file, and four counts of tax law violations. The charges stem from using money from the charity for car repairs, flights, a golf tournament in Ponte Vedra Beach in Brown’s honor, luxury boxes at a Beyonce concert and at an NFL game in Washington, D.C.
Brown is alleged to have used her official position to solicit over $800,000 for the charity, One Door for Education, between 2011 and 2016, but the organization apparently only gave out two scholarships totaling $1200 in that time period. Prosecutors called it Brown's “personal slush fund.”
While Brown has not yet had her day in court and is innocent until proven guilty, U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced that Brown had stepped aside from her leadership post on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, as per House Democratic caucus rules.
Due to redistricting Brown is already facing a tough primary contest that is to be held on August 30th.
The VA Spends Millions on Guns and Ammunition
Last month an organization called American Transparency released a report about what it calls “the militarization of America.” It laid out in detail how many federal agencies have been arming themselves with weapons, including military-type weaponry, and how much money they’ve been spending on it.
Included among their findings was the fact that the Department of Veterans Affairs has bought more than $11 million worth of weapons, ammo and other security equipment between 2005 and 2014. Besides pistols, the list includes body armor, police batons, ballistic shields, riot shields and helmets, night gun sights, tactical equipment for crowd control and more.
The VA also bought $200,000 in night vision equipment and $2.3 million worth of body armor the report said.
In 1996 the VA had 2,393 security personnel and it began a program to have them carry firearms and have arrest authority. By 2008 the VA force had grown to 3, 175 officers and all were armed and had arrest authority. The VA now has over 3,700 officers.
In an email to the American Transparency organization last February the VA stated, “"While VA police work very closely with Federal, local and state law enforcement partners, VA police will be the first to have to deal with any active situation and are well trained accordingly."
The VA isn’t the only federal agency that’s been arming itself. The number of non-Defense Department federal officers authorized to make arrests and carry firearms (200,000) now exceeds the number of U.S. Marines (182,000). In its escalating arms and ammo stockpiling, this federal arms race is unlike anything in history. Over the last 20 years, the number of these federal officers with arrest-and-firearm authority has nearly tripled to over 200,000 today, from 74,500 in 1996.
Here are other findings from the report:
- Sixty-seven non-military federal agencies spent $1.48 billion on guns, ammunition, and military-style equipment.
- Of that total amount, ‘Traditional Law Enforcement’ Agencies spent 77 percent ($1.14 billion) while ‘Administrative’ or ‘General’ Agencies spent 23 percent ($335.1 million).
- Non-military federal spending on guns and ammunition jumped 104 percent from $55 million (FY2006) to $112 million (FY2011).
- Nearly 6 percent ($42 million) of all federal guns and ammunition purchase transactions were wrongly coded. Some purchases were actually for ping-pong balls, gym equipment, bread, copiers, cotton balls, or cable television including a line item from the Coast Guard entered as "Cable Dude".
- Administrative agencies including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Small Business Administration (SBA), Smithsonian Institution, Social Security Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, United States Mint, Department of Education, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and many other agencies purchased guns, ammo, and military-style equipment.
- Since 2004, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) purchased 1.7 billion bullets including 453 million hollow-point bullets. As of 1/1/2014, DHS estimated its bullet inventory-reserve at 22-months, or 160 million rounds.
- Between 1998 and 2008 (the most recent comprehensive data available) the number of law enforcement officers employed by federal agencies increased nearly 50 percent from 83,000 (1998) to 120,000 (2008). However, Department of Justice officer count increased from 40,000 (2008) to 69,000 (2013) and Department of Homeland Security officer count increased from 55,000 (2008) to 70,000 (2013).
- The Internal Revenue Service, with its 2,316 special agents, spent nearly $11 million on guns, ammunition and military-style equipment.
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spent $3.1 million on guns, ammunition and military-style equipment. The EPA has spent $715 million on its ‘Criminal Enforcement Division’ from FY2005 to present even as the agency has come under fire for failing to perform its basic functions.
- Federal agencies spent $313,958 on paintball equipment, along with $14.7 million on Tasers, $1.6 million on unmanned aircraft, $8.2 million on buckshot, $7.44 million on projectiles, and $4 million on grenades/launchers.
After the horrific slaying of police officers in Dallas last week, the desire for police officers to have adequate equipment to face such dangerous situations is understandable. But does that mean that federal agencies that have nothing to do with law enforcement need to be armed like a military force? There are already a multiple of federal law enforcement agencies. Perhaps they should be given the responsibility of protecting federal administrative agencies like the VA.
Bridging the Divide
A panel of mental health experts meet at the National Press Club this week to discuss the public’s perception—and employer perceptions—of military veterans transitioning back into their communities and workforce. The panel focused on the results of two surveys conducted recently by the George W. Bush Institute and the global public relations and marketing firm, Edelman. Survey results indicated 40 percent of Americans believe half of all veterans are experiencing mental health challenges, where in fact it’s one in five veterans, which matches the civilian sector. Also troubling was 92 percent of employers believe veterans need access to mental health care programs, and that the great majority of Americans and employers perceive veterans as heroes, but not as strategic assets, which is a disconnect between the civilian population and those who serve, according to Duffy. “We understand that in times of war there are heroes, but just because you went to war doesn't mean that you came back a hero,” he said. “By calling everybody a hero, it devalues the term, plus it puts everyone on a pedestal when you’re just trying to successfully transition back into the community.” Read the survey conducted by the George W. Bush Institute and the other survey conducted by Edelman.
Commission on Care Releases Final Report
On Wednesday, the Commission on Care, created by Congress to recommend ways to improve the VA health care system, issued its final report which includes 18 recommendations on how the VA delivers care to veterans, the governance and workforce of the VA health care system and which veterans are eligible for VA health care. VFW National Commander John A. Biedrzycki Jr. thanked the commission for their hard work and offered the VFW’s support for most of their recommendations and expressed the VFW’s concerns with one recommendation that would create another layer of bureaucracy to manage the day-to-day operations of the VA health care system. Read the commission’s final report.
The VA Releases Results From Largest Veteran Suicide Study
On Thursday, the VA released preliminary findings from the country’s largest study on veteran suicide. Over the past year, the VA has worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Defense to gather and analyze mortality records for 55 million veterans from every state and U.S. territory, dating from 1979-2014. A study in 2010, which used data from 20 states, estimated the number of veteran deaths by suicide averaged 22 per day. The latest study estimates the number of veteran deaths by suicide averaged 20 per day in 2014. The report validates previous findings that veterans who use VA health care are at lower risk of suicide compared to veterans who do not use VA care. The VA plans to release the entire study by the end of this month. The VFW is alarmed by this report’s findings and will do what is necessary to ensure veterans who contemplate taking their own lives have the care and support they need to cope with their mental health care issues. Read the preliminary findings.
House Votes to Protect Veterans Preference
On Thursday, the House of Representatives approved language which would ban the use of federal funds to change hiring preference for veterans. The amendment, part of a larger appropriations bill for several federal agencies, now goes to the Senate for consideration. This ban would protect veterans from a Senate proposal that the VFW adamantly opposes which would allow veterans preference to be used only one time.
Online Health Care Application
Last week, the VA launched a new and easier way for veterans to enroll in VA health care through the vets.gov website. The new application was developed in response to concerns with the current Veterans Online Application––a fillable PDF that can only be opened with devices that can read Adobe documents. The new application is an HTML form that can be viewed with any web browser, including mobile devices. If you would like to enroll in VA health care using the new application, visit: https://www.vets.gov/healthcare/apply/. Learn about other ways to enroll in VA health care.
Arlington National Cemetery’s Future
We attended a discussion this week about the future of Arlington National Cemetery. Currently, only one percent of those eligible choose to be buried or inurned at Arlington, with the rest being interred at the VA’s 134 national cemeteries or in state veterans cemeteries or elsewhere. Even so, based on its current pace, Arlington will run out of space sometime between the years 2050 and 2070, a timeframe that takes into consideration the 90,000 current available spaces, the 27,000 additional spaces from its millennium project, and the 45,000 to 50,000 spaces to be gained from a southern expansion into where the Navy Annex once stood. The question the Arlington advisory committee is pondering is whether changes could or should be made to eligibility requirements to extend the cemetery’s lifespan. Right now, all active-duty deaths are eligible, as well as military retirees, those with qualifying medals, and those with honorable discharges. We will report more as this discussion continues.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced the identification of remains of Marine Corps Pvt. Robert J. Carter, 19, of Oklahoma City, who will be buried July 13 in Arlington National Cemetery. In November 1943, Carter was assigned to Company G, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, which landed against stiff Japanese resistance on the small island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands. Over several days of intense fighting at Tarawa, approximately 1,000 Marines and sailors were killed, and more than 2,000 were wounded, but the Japanese were virtually annihilated. Carter died on Nov. 20, 1943. Learn more.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE July 7, 2016
VA Conducts Nation’s Largest Analysis of Veteran Suicide
WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has undertaken the most comprehensive analysis of Veteran suicide rates in the U.S., examining over 55 million Veteran records from 1979 to 2014 from every state in the nation. The effort extends VA’s knowledge from the previous report issued in 2010, which examined three million Veteran records from 20 states were available. Based on the data from 2010, VA estimated the number of Veteran deaths by suicide averaged 22 per day. The current analysis indicates that in 2014, an average of 20 Veterans a day died from suicide. “One Veteran suicide is one too many, and this collaborative effort provides both updated and comprehensive data that allows us to make better informed decisions on how to prevent this national tragedy,” said VA Under Secretary for Health, Dr. David J. Shulkin. “We as a nation must focus on bringing the number of Veteran suicides to zero." The final report will be publicly released later this month. Key findings of the analysis will include: 65% of all Veterans who died from suicide in 2014 were 50 years of age or older. Veterans accounted for 18% of all deaths from suicide among U.S. adults. This is a decrease from 22% in 2010. Since 2001, U.S. adult civilian suicides increased 23%, while Veteran suicides increased 32% in the same time period. After controlling for age and gender, this makes the risk of suicide 21% greater for Veterans. Since 2001, the rate of suicide among US Veterans who use VA services increased by 8.8%, while the rate of suicide among Veterans who do not use VA services increased by 38.6%. In the same time period, the rate of suicide among male Veterans who use VA services increased 11%, while the rate of suicide increased 35% among male Veterans who do not use VA services. In the same time period, the rate of suicide among female Veterans who use VA services increased 4.6%, while the rate of suicide increased 98% among female Veterans who do not use VA services. Please also see our Suicide Prevention Fact Sheet at the following link:
VA is aggressively undertaking a number of new measures to prevent suicide, including: Ensuring same-day access for Veterans with urgent mental health needs at over 1,000 points of care by the end of calendar year 2016. In fiscal year 2015, more than 1.6 million Veterans received mental health treatment from VA, including at over 150 medical centers, 820 community-based outpatient clinics and 300 Vet Centers that provide readjustment counseling. Veterans also enter VA health care through the Veterans Crisis Line, VA staff on college and university campuses, or other outreach points. Using predictive modeling to determine which Veterans may be at highest risk of suicide, so providers can intervene early. Veterans in the top 0.1% of risk, who have a 43-fold increased risk of death from suicide within a month, can be identified before clinical signs of suicide are evident in order to save lives before a crisis occurs. Expanding telemental health care by establishing four new regional telemental health hubs across the VA healthcare system. Hiring over 60 new crisis intervention responders for the Veterans Crisis Line. Each responder receives intensive training on a wide variety of topics in crisis intervention, substance use disorders, screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment. Building new collaborations between Veteran programs in VA and those working in community settings, such as Give an Hour, Psych Armor Institute, University of Michigan’s Peer Advisors for Veterans Education Program (PAVE), and the Cohen Veterans Network. Creating stronger inter-agency (e.g. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health) and new public-private partnerships (e.g., Johnson & Johnson Healthcare System, Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation, Walgreen’s, and many more) focused on preventing suicide among Veterans. Many of these efforts were catalyzed by VA’s February 2016 Preventing Veteran Suicide—A Call to Action summit, which focused on improving mental health care access for Veterans across the nation and increasing resources for the VA Suicide Prevention Program. Suicide is an issue that affects all Americans. Recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data reported in April 2016 that from 1999 through 2014 (the most recent year with data available from CDC), suicide rates increased 24 % in the general population for both males and females. VA has implemented comprehensive, broad ranging suicide prevention initiatives, including a toll-free Veterans Crisis Line, placement of Suicide Prevention Coordinators at all VA Medical Centers and large outpatient facilities, and improvements in case management and tracking. Immediate help is available at www.VeteransCrisisLine.net or by calling the Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1) or texting 838255.
It can be hard for veterans to find access to resources and help. Here's a rundown of 9 apps that can help veterans get care and access their hard-earned benefits. READ MORE
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy vowed the House will work against the clock to pass appropriations bills as Congress' waning calendar suggests a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government past Sept. 30 and an omnibus spending resolution grows ever more likely. Both loom over Congress’s election-year schedule, which has eight working days ahead, then a seven-week recess for party conventions and campaigning, and then four working weeks in September. McCarthy, R-Calif., all but acknowledged his caucus would not complete all 12 appropriations bills before the end of the fiscal year. READ MORE
Legislation to Improve Servicemembers’ Protections Introduced in Congress
Last week Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced the Justice for Servicemembers Act, a bill that would improve the protections that were already supposed to have been given to individuals who leave their civilian jobs temporarily to perform active duty military service. The bill is in response to employers who have found a loophole in the original Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Act (USERRA) that was passed in 1994.
The original USERRA legislation was supposed to guarantee that a person who goes on active military duty has the right to return to his or job under the following conditions:
The pre-service employer must reemploy servicemembers returning from a period of service in the uniformed services if those servicemembers meet five criteria:
- The person must have been absent from a civilian job on account of service in the uniformed services;
- The person must have given advance notice to the employer that he or she was leaving the job for service in the uniformed services, unless such notice was precluded by military necessity or otherwise impossible or unreasonable;
- The cumulative period of military service with that employer must not have exceeded five years;
- The person must not have been released from service under dishonorable or other punitive conditions; and
- The person must have reported back to the civilian job in a timely manner or have submitted a timely application for reemployment, unless timely reporting back or application was impossible or unreasonable.
According to the 1994 law in brief, USERRA protects civilian job rights and benefits for veterans and members of Reserve components.
It establishes the cumulative length of time that an individual may be absent from work for military duty and retain reemployment rights to five years, with certain exceptions.
It provides protection for disabled veterans, requiring employers to make reasonable efforts to accommodate the disability.
USERRA provides that returning service-members are reemployed in the job that they would have attained had they not been absent for military service (the long-standing "escalator" principle), with the same seniority, status and pay, as well as other rights and benefits determined by seniority.
Health and pension plan coverage for service members is provided for by USERRA.
However, many employers have taken advantage of an apparent loophole in the law by claiming the law was voluntary and that returning servicemembers could be forced into arbitration, thus denying them the opportunity to take an employer that refused to reinstate them under the terms of the USERRA law to court. At least two federal courts have ruled that Congress was not clear about the enforceability of the law.
This new legislation aims to clarify the original law and make it clear that returning servicemembers can be forced into arbitration. Currently the Senate version of the bill, S. 3402 has only Democratic sponsors, but past legislation dealing with servicemembers employment issues have been bi-partisan and the same is expected this time.
The House version of the bill is H.R 5426 and it has an equal number of Republican and Democratic sponsors. However, major corporations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are opposed to the legislation and a difficult fight is expected in trying to gain passage.
More detailed information about the current USERRA law can be found at: http://webapps.dol.gov/elaws/vets/userra/empent.asp.
Women in World War I
Below is an Op-Ed piece written by 2 of our World War I Centennial Commissioners
The naming of a new U.S. Navy destroyer in honor of Chief Nurse Lenah Higbee may be just a blip in the news, but it represents a long-overdue recognition of American women’s participation in World War I.
Across the globe, over thirty countries are commemorating the Great War with educational programs, memorial services, and public events. The United States shed its isolationist stance and joined with the Entente powers in 1917, three years after the war began. Thus, our two-year centennial of World War I will begin later as well, on the 100th anniversary of Congress’ declaration of war in April 2017.
This centennial provides a chance to re-awaken Americans to this largely forgotten war, and its continuing impact on our lives, and on the geopolitics of today’s world. Name a hotspot in the news — shall we start with Syria? Or how about the Ukraine, the Balkans, post-colonial Africa, or the South China Sea? World War I and its aftermath continue to weave bloodstained threads into the global social fabric of the 21st Century.
The Great War links directly to contemporary cultural issues as well. While segregated “colored” regiments like the highly decorated Harlem Rattlers met with a joyous welcome home at the war’s end, the violent reality of life within apartheid United States inspired black veterans to join a young organization called the NAACP. Along the way, their leadership helped spark the Harlem Renaissance.
The seismic impact of World War I also shaped the role of American women, both in the military and in civilian life. We are all familiar with the poster image of World War II’s iconic Rosie the Riveter and her “We Can Do It!” ethos.
As the chairman of the US World War I Centennial Commission, Robert Dalessandro, recently commented, “Rosie the Riveter had a mother, and that mother worked in a factory too!” In fact, by 1918, two million civilian women worked in war-related industries. Women also took on traditionally male roles in farming, participating in the stunning growth of American agricultural production during this era. We associate these changes with World War II, but the Great War led the way in expanding women’s horizons.
American women volunteered overseas in newly professionalized capacities on the war front, starting with the German invasion of Belgium in 1914.
Women worked as Red Cross nurses, as relief workers, as supervisors of large-scale resettlement efforts. They often wore military-type uniforms, displaying a no-nonsense appearance that helped them get the job done, whether it was driving an American Field Service ambulance or organizing a local orphanage.
When the US officially entered the war in 1917, many of these female volunteers signed up in the Army or Navy Nurse Corps. On the USS Mongolia, one of the first troop ships to arrive in France in 1917, misfiring ordinance accidently killed two female nurses as the ship pulled into the French harbor. They would be the first two Americans to die in the line of duty during World War I.
The Navy Nurse Corps began in 1908. It was here that Lenah Higbee made her mark. Under her leadership, the Corps grew from 22 original nurses to over 10,000 in wartime. She received the Naval Cross in 1918, the first woman to receive this honor. Higbee was also the first women in the navy to have a ship named after her.
There are other “firsts” associated with the Great War. Women’s suffrage was a hard-won victory in a battle that had begun over 75 years before the Great War, but women’s wartime service gave it that last, successful push.
The expansion of women’s roles during World War I provides just one example of the war’s impact on American life. The war’s history abounds in diverse themes -of immigration, technology, treachery, heroism, philanthropy, economic strength, artistic inspiration– and each of them lends valuable perspective on the 21st century.
Over the next 3 years, the US World War I Centennial Commission will build awareness about World War I through educational programs, the arts, and the creation of a national memorial park in Washington DC. Please join us in commemorating the upcoming centennial in your community and across the nation. Visit ww1cc.org
Libby Haight O’Connell and Monique Brouillet Seefried serve on the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission.
Allies Commemorate 100th anniversary of the Start of the Battle of the Somme in World War I
Last Friday, putting aside Brexit for the day, leaders of Great Britain (including PM Cameron, Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, Prince Charles, Prince William, Prince Harry) and representatives of Germany, Canada , Pakistan, and South Africa joined President Francois Holland in northern France to remember the beginning of one of the deadliest military battles in all of history, the Battle of the Somme in World War I.
On the first day approximately 120,000 men left their trenches. 60,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded on that first day. At 7:28 a.m. on July 1st all of Britain stopped for 2 minutes to commemorate the day. An all-night vigil was held at the tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Cathedral for the first time in 50 years.
The battle dragged on for 5 months and by its end over 1,000,000 soldiers from all sides of the War were killed or wounded. Other than the terrible cost the battle is remembered for the first use of tanks and the use of air power. At the end of the battle the Allies had gained 6 miles of German occupied territory.
For the next few months there will be additional commemorations in the Somme region to mark the contributions of other Commonwealth nations in the battle. These include July 2nd for Canada, July 10th for South Africa, July 19th and July 23rd for Australia and September 15th for New Zealand.
VA Fights Bill to Help WWII Vets Exposed to Mustard Gas
Last week the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that they do not support proposed legislation by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) which would make it easier for World War II veterans intentionally exposed to mustard gas in U.S. military experiments to get medical benefits.
These veterans have been blocked for decades from receiving VA benefits because of an oath of secrecy they were forced to take at the time. The VA argues that the plan could unintentionally expand coverage to all WWII veterans, but that they “fully support delivering benefits to veterans and survivors as quickly as possible,” according to David McLenachen, deputy undersecretary for disability assistance.
Senator McCaskill's legislation mandates a review of previously denied claims, lowers the bar to get the benefits, revamps the VA’s application and adjudication process and mandates an investigation by the VA and Pentagon to determine what went wrong with the process. The bill would mandate that during the review of previous claims, the VA must presume a veteran was exposed to mustard gas until proven otherwise.
Only 40 WWII veterans are receiving benefits for mustard gas exposure, and up to 90 percent of the disability claims filed from 2005 to 2015 with the Department of Veterans Affairs have been denied, according to McCaskill. Further, her office says the burden of proof would only be flipped for those who have already filed a claim, and there are only 400 of them left alive.
It is unclear why VA believes all WWII veterans would be covered by the presumption of mustard gas exposure, but if they make their position clear we will let you know.
Privatized Army Commissary Facing Shortages
The Marine Times is reporting that servicemembers, their families, and authorized government contractors stationed at Army Garrison Kwajalein Atoll, which is 2,000 miles from the the nearest major land mass in the middle of the Pacific Ocean are dealing with a severe shortage of fresh fruits and vegetables at their contractor-operated grocery store.
Apparently some dependents are even taking five hour Space-A military flights to Honolulu to shop for produce and dairy items.
The commissary is the residents' only option for buying groceries. While the supply-chain problems plaguing Kwajalein Atoll have been going on for decades, this could possibly presage future problems if the Department of Defense is forced to privatize even more commissaries worldwide, as initially proposed by the FY '17 National Defense Authorization Act.
From Florida to Samoa, On-site Sales Extend Commissary Benefit
Army National Guard gray area retiree JoAnn Czerwinski lives in Fargo, North Dakota, about 75 miles away from a commissary, too far to shop there regularly. But thanks to twice-a-year Guard/Reserve On-Site Sales in Fargo she stretches her food dollars by stocking up on items, especially meat, at low commissary prices to feed her family of four.
"I've been to lots of these sales over the years," said Czerwinski, a mother of two teenage sons. "The meat prices just can't be beat. In May we normally stock up on steak, and in September it's more like stew meat and roasts. We stock up on other items like cereal, paper goods and laundry detergent, but the meats are the big draw for us."
The Grand Forks Air Force Base Commissary supports the two sales in Fargo, one held at the Army National Guard facility there and the other at the Armed Forces Reserve Center. It's all part of the Defense Commissary Agency's Guard/Reserve On-Site Sales program.
"We've been doing these on-site sales for years, and this year it looks like we could have a couple more sales than usual at other locations because of the interest we're getting from area Guard and Reserve units," said Lori Looney, the Grand Forks commissary store director.
Willie Watkins, chief of agency e-Commerce and Guard/ Reserve On-Site Sales Program Management, says the sales are a way to bring the commissary benefit to authorized patrons who don't live near a commissary. For fiscal year 2016 the agency anticipates exceeding 50 on-site sales in 17 states, including Alaska and Hawaii. That's more than the 42 held last fiscal year totaling $3.7 million in sales with 27,000 customer transactions.
"It's a cooperative effort," Watkins said. "Guard and Reserve units and commissary store directors across the country work together to determine sale locations and dates. And the sales are open to any commissary-authorized shopper, not just members of the sponsoring unit."
Here's how it works:
- The host commissaries, sponsoring military units and commissary vendors do extensive logistical planning before a sale
- The wide variety of items featured at sales is determined by store directors and driven by customer demand. The results of previous sales are used to refine product assortment, which consists of grocery and dry goods and can feature fresh fruits and vegetables, selections of fresh meat, frozen items, chill items and even deli and bakery items
- Sale items are delivered directly to the site and staged for sale
- Customers shop and pay for purchases much like they would at a commissary
"Nothing communicates the value of the commissary benefit quite like our on-site sales," said Looney. "I've seen a few Camp Grafton on-site sale customers who have travelled all the way to our store because they appreciate the value and quality of the on-site sale. That's a 95-mile trip one way."
For more information on particular sales see the Guard/Reserve On-Site Sales page on DeCA's website.
Think Tank to Study Pentagon Reform
On Thursday of last week a Washington, D.C., think tank, the Bipartisan Policy Center, announced it is forming a task force to study redesign and reorganization of personnel within the U.S. military. According to FederalNewsRadio.com, the task force is “aimed at ensuring the military remains capable of succeeding against future threats by improving troop recruitment and retention.”
Along with budget constraints and aging bureaucratic structure, the reduced number of personnel available for military service will be analyzed by the task force. These factors will require improved utilization of both the active and reserve components, according to the task force’s initial report.
Another concern will be the need to adapt to changes in threats to the force in this age of multiple and changing methods of warfare. One example that was cited was cyber warfare. Earlier in June Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter had announced his proposal to bring in specialized personnel with no previous military experience as mid to high level officers. Experts in information technology were specifically mentioned as an example of what he had in mind.
The article stated that the Department of Defense is already trying to address changes that it believes are needed regarding military personnel issues. In addition to bringing individuals with no military experience in at higher ranks, these include such things as opening all military career fields to women, allowing gays in the military and, as announced just last week by Secretary Carter, allowing transgender personnel to serve.
In addition, Congress is already trying to address changes that it believes are needed in the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) now being debated by a House/Senate conference committee, as well as changes that were included in last year’s NDAA. Among these are such policies as forcing military personnel to pay more for their health care, reducing the housing allowance, reducing the number of general and flag officers, and making active duty personnel take greater risk in their retirement program. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also tried to slash the commissary benefit by forcing commissaries to begin a program aimed at privatization, but thanks to TREA and other military and veterans groups, this effort was blocked.
After citing the various efforts in Congress and DoD to make changes in personnel programs, the FederalNewsRadio.com article stated that, “Others in Congress have accused DoD of spending too much time and money on personnel issues, instead of spending it on readiness.” Sadly, this is the mindset of so many in Congress, including some who should know better. Instead of seeing personnel as the most important weapons system with the U.S. military, they seem to see them as an expense that they need to cut. TREA finds this kind of short-sightedness appalling and it will only lead to disaster if it prevails. TREA will continue to fight for all military personnel and to educate members of Congress that dealing with personnel issues should be the number one concern when it comes to military readiness.
The report stated that the think tank will have as its members a number of top experts in the defense arena but it did not state who they are or how many there are. Several reports from the panel will be released during the coming months.
Where Does DoD Spend all its Money? We May Actually Find Out Before Long
For years TREA has been insisting on the need for the Department of Defense to be audited so they know where they spend their money. This is especially crucial because the DoD leadership has insisted since the time of the George W. Bush administration that personnel costs, especially health care costs, have been “eating us alive,” in the words for former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
TREA has believed, and continues to believe, that if DoD knew where it spends its money the excuse about the need to cut health care benefits would be deflated. Here are some facts.
The Pentagon is the largest and most expensive department in the federal government, yet it has never passed a financial audit. In 1990, Congress passed legislation requiring all federal agencies to present "auditable financial statements."
But in 1995, the General Accountability Office (GAO), the independent investigative arm of Congress, deemed the Pentagon’s financial management to be "high risk." In 2000, the GAO found that nearly one third of the accounting entries in the Pentagon's budget were untraceable.
In 2009, the GAO said its auditors "have continued to report significant weaknesses in the department’s ability to provide timely, reliable, consistent, and accurate information for management analysis, decision-making, and reporting." The next year, the GAO found that half of the Pentagon's $366 billion in contract awards were never even completed.
In an appearance before the Senate Budget Committee a number of years ago then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared that the department would be fully auditable by 2014 instead of waiting until 2017.
Much to no one’s surprise, DoD was not able to be audited in 2014. And we are now just six months away from 2017.
According to an article in FederalNewsRadio.com last week, DoD’s financial managers have begun making plans to brief both the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigns on their progress in the coming months because they want to try and maintain the momentum they’ve achieved in getting ready for an audit.
Current law states that DoD must declare itself audit ready by Sept. 30th of next year and they believe if the momentum can be sustained they will be ready. They caution, however, that they can’t dictate what the next administration might do and where it will place its emphasis.
Mike McCord, the current DoD Comptroller and chief financial officer has pointed out that when the Obama administration came into office the transition team from the Bush administration placed its emphasis on the DoD budget, with very little on the audit. McCord’s goal is to make sure the audit is high on the agenda for the transition teams.
TREA will continue to monitor this situation. Horror stories about millions of dollars in DoD funds that are wasted or unaccounted for appear regularly in the news. Military personnel, including active duty and retirees should not have benefits taken away because DoD doesn’t know where it spends its money.
VA Tells Senate They Have Plan to Replace VistA
At a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing last week officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that they intend to purchase a commercial electronic health record system, rather than building one themselves, to replace the 40-year-old VistA system that they currently use.
The head of the Veterans' Health Administration (VHA), VA Under Secretary for Health David Shulkin testified that VA officials have reached a consensus that “looking at a commercial product is probably the way to go,” and he added, “But we need to do this in a way that incorporates our ability to integrate with community providers and unique needs of veterans,” according to healthcare-informatics.com.
"The digital health platform will be a system of systems," Dr. David Shulkin wrote in his June 22 testimony. "It is not dependent on any particular [electronic health record], and VA can integrate new or existing resources into the system without sacrificing data interoperability. One of the digital health platform's defining features will be system-wide cloud integration, a marked improvement over the more than 130 instances of VistA that we have today."
Congress remains concerned about the status of efforts underway at the Department of Veterans Affairs to modernize their electronic health record system, the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA). The hearing focused on examining progress and challenges with modernizing IT at the VA.
Apparently many of the the IT systems the VA uses are 40 to 50 years old, and VA CIO LaVerne Council acknowledged that with regard to software development lifecycle, “40 to 50 years is ancient in the world of IT.”
On the issue of interoperability with DoD's Electronic Health Record (EHR) initiative, Shulkin pointed out the VA’s joint legacy viewer currently has 138,000 VA users with more than 4.6 million veteran records available through it.
Shulkin stressed in his testimony that the $510 million in IT development funds given to VistA since 2014 will not have gone to waste since it has not yet been spent, "regardless of whether our path forward is to continue with VistA, a shift to a commercial EHR platform as DoD is doing, or some combination of both."
He added, "We are looking at a transition plan that brings VA into a future state of where all of healthcare is going to need to be and that’s this issue of interoperability with community providers, the VA and DOD."
Commissaries to Start Selling Products with Their Own Label Soon
We have been regularly reporting on our fight to save the commissary benefit, and it looks like we have been successful again this year. However, the fight will continue every year.
One of the ways the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) hopes to reduce its reliance on the taxpayer subsidy is by introducing products with its own label. This practice has been followed in commercial grocery stores for years. These “generic” products cost less than name-brand products, and their quality has, in general, greatly improved over the years.
While commissaries have been selling brands that are similar to the generic products for a long time, they were not developed by the commissary agency. By developing their own products, they believe the costs for those products will be less.
According to one report, the commissaries’ private label products should start appearing on shelves later this fall.
There has been a strong push by some members of Congress to eliminate the taxpayer subsidy of commissaries, which means they would have to be privatized, and the benefit would be gone. This private label strategy on the part of DeCA one of the ways they hope to reduce the amount of taxpayer money needed to sustain the commissary benefit.
Hero of WWII Doolittle Raid dies at age 94
Last Wednesday, David Thatcher, a decorated member of the Doolittle Raid of Japan in April 1942 died. Now only 100 year old Richard Cole, Lt. Col. James Doolittle’s co-pilot survives of the 80 men who participated in the daring raid on Tokyo and 4 other Japanese cities during the punishing early months of the Pacific War. The raid lifted America’s spirits and provoked the Japanese to attack Midway and suffer a terrible defeat.
Corporal Thatcher, gunner on the “Ruptured Duck” saved his 4 fellow crewmen after the plane crashed on a Japanese occupied Chinese island while trying to make an emergency landing. The rest of the crew was badly injured. After tending to their wounds Corporal Thatcher and Chinese fishermen, peasants and guerrillas carried the injured airmen on a 5 day journey to a mainland hospital evading Japanese troops all the way. The captain of the plane, Lt. Ted Lawson, wrote a best seller “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo” which was made into a hit 1944 movie. In it he wrote “I don’t know what we would have done without Thatcher.”
House of Representatives Passes IVF Treatment Provision
Last week the House of Representatives passed the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2017, which contained a provision to allow the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to cover the costs of assisted reproductive technology, including IVF, just like the Department of Defense does. This has been an ongoing fight led by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).
Currently, veterans who have service-related injuries that prevent them from having children naturally must cover the costs of IVF out of pocket, which can cost more than $12,000 per round. If they receive the treatment while on active duty, however, the Department of Defense will cover the cost. Sen. Murray has been fighting since 2012 to reverse this policy.
The bill now moves to the Senate.
A NDAA Senate Amendment would help Military Spouses get federal employment on bases
An amendment included in the Senate’s version of the NDAA ends the 2 year time limit for military spouses to receive military spouse preference for working on bases. Presently the time starts to run from the date of the servicemember’s permanent change of station orders. These are issued long before the family arrives at the new duty station. This along with “the demands of raising children, adjusting to new surroundings, and the actual availability of federal jobs” often means that the spouse can never use the preference.
The Amendment was sponsored by Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) who said:” “Military spouses already make vast personal and professional sacrifices in support of their families and our nation, and they should not be burdened with arbitrary limitations that make their lives more challenging. “My amendment will provide more freedom and flexibility to military spouses by letting them pursue federal employment at a time that is most convenient for them and their families.”
Military Health System Experts Offers Summer Advice from Fighting Bugs to Knowing Where to go for Medical Help
Here is a helpful Press Release from TRICARE
Summer is here, and military families are taking advantage of the warm weather and vacation schedules to spend some well-earned time together. But you need to keep in mind that health hazards are lurking out there. Whether it’s fighting bugs or keeping from getting sunburned, the right precautions can help make sure your summer vacation doesn’t turn into a summer headache.
One of the first areas to consider is keeping insects, particularly mosquitoes, at bay. And that starts with getting rid of the threat before those little suckers have a chance to make a meal out of you and your loved ones.
“My watch word is eliminate,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeremy Wilkinson, chief of public health at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. “Eliminate the places where mosquitoes can breed and grow, and eliminate the opportunity for them to bite you.”
Wilkinson advised tipping and tossing standing water from containers, such as tires, buckets and flower pots. If the water can’t be eliminated, treat it with a mosquito-specific, environmentally friendly larvicide. Getting rid of neighborhood litter and debris and managing vegetation reduce the number of hiding places for mosquitoes.
Keeping mosquitoes from biting you is also key in the fight. Wear loose-fitting, light-colored long-sleeved shirts and pants and use insect repellent containing DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus or IR 3535 as the active ingredient, carefully following all label directions. Make sure doors and window screens are in good shape to keep mosquitoes out in the first place.
Diseases, such as Zika, West Nile and even Chikungunya are all concerns. With Zika raising so many alarms these days, Wilkinson advised those pregnant or trying to get pregnant not travel to Zika-infested areas. “But if you do go and you don’t exhibit any symptoms of Zika, wait eight weeks before trying to become pregnant or engaging in sex that involves exchanging bodily fluids. If you do show signs of Zika, men need to wait at least six months after symptoms start, and women need to wait at least eight weeks,” he said. More information is available on the Military Health System’s website.
Speaking of travel, military doctors recommend, no matter where you go, you should have on hand military identification cards for you and every eligible member of your family.
“If you end up at a hospital, it makes it a lot easier for everyone, especially when you’re trying to get authorizations for care far from your regular military treatment facility,” said Army Col. Timothy Barron, an emergency medicine doctor at Fort Belvoir. “If the children are traveling to a grandparent’s place, they really should have their IDs. It really makes a difference.” More information about traveling with TRICARE is available on the TRICARE website.
Barron also said too much sun is a common occurrence during the summer. Even a simple sunburn can debilitate you and pave the way for secondary infections.
“Make sure you wear a hat, sunblock and light-colored clothing to reduce your chance of getting burned,” said Barron. “And don’t think that sunburn is a good base for a tan.”
Other common risks during summer vacations are exposure to poisonous plants, such as poison ivy. Learn what plants in your area are trouble and avoid contact with them.
Water safety is another important thing to keep in mind. Barron said the warmer weather naturally draws more people to pools, lakes, rivers and the ocean. Keep an eye on each other, especially children. He said despite soaking in water, people can become dehydrated. “Even though you’re at the beach and having a great time, you still have to stay hydrated. That water is not being absorbed through the skin. You have to drink fluids.”
He recommends drinking at least two liters of water throughout the day. Or, a better rule of thumb might be the color of your urine. If it’s clear, you’re getting enough to drink. But more color in urine is a sign you’re not getting enough fluids.
Barron said the summer also brings more activity, and that can mean sports-related injuries. “Prepare your body as if you’re an athlete. Wear proper sneakers, proper safety equipment, and stretch and warm up a bit,” he said.
You’ve taken all the precautions, but somebody still ends up sick. And, of course, it happens during your summer vacation, far away from home. TRICARE beneficiaries have a tool they can use out on the road this summer (or any season): the Nurse Advice Line. By calling 1-800-TRICARE (874-2273) and selecting option 1, patients talk directly with a nurse who evaluates their conditions and gives advice ranging from self-care to an immediate emergency room visit, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We have a lot of young parents who are away from their own families, and they don’t have anyone to go to for advice,” said Regina Julian, chief of primary care for the Defense Health Agency. “Being on the road for summer vacations and away from your usual hospital or clinic makes things even more problematic. Our nurses use evidence-based, best medical practices to evaluate patients and determine the best method of care. We’ll also help people find an urgent care center, if needed. We give parents peace of mind.”
The experts agree: have fun but be careful during this summer’s vacation season.
Senate Holds Hearing on IT System
On Wednesday, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on the VA’s Information Technology (IT) system. The VA provided an update on the current state of the system, to include VA/DOD health record interoperability, and the VA’s plan to meet its future needs. To read the VA’s testimony and to watch the hearing, click here.
Senate Holds Hearing for New Assistant Secretary
On Tuesday, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a nomination hearing for Christopher O’Conner. O’Conner is a retired Marine and is currently the acting assistant secretary for the VA’s Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs. Once confirmed, O’Conner’s title as assistant secretary will be made permanent. To read O’Conner’s written statement and to watch the hearing, click here.
Military Construction and the VA Appropriations Agreement
On Wednesday night, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees announced a conference agreement on an appropriations bill to fund military construction and VA service and programs. The agreement would appropriate $74.4 billion for the VA’s discretionary programs, which is an increase from previous years, but falls short of the Administration’s request and Independent Budget’s recommendations. Specifically, the bill would underfund the VA's major construction projects and community care programs, which allow veterans to seek private sector care when VA care is not readily available. The VFW commends the conferees for expanding VA fertility treatment options for veterans who are unable to start a family due to their service-connected disabilities. The agreement would authorize the VA to use assisted reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization, to treat service-connected infertility and reimburse veterans for the cost of adoption. The agreement was passed by the House on Thursday morning, but faces an uncertain future in the Senate due to a disagreement on how to fund Zika research and prevention. Stay tuned to the Action Corps Weekly for updates on this important bill.
House Passes Veterans Measures
On Tuesday, the House passed two veterans bills. H.R. 4590 authorizes VA funding to carry out the construction or improvements to seven VA medical facilities. H.R. 3936 calls on the VA to carry out a three-year pilot program which will allow veterans to file a disability claim with the assistance of a Veteran Engagement Team. The VFW is supportive of both of these proposals. Both bills now move to the Senate for passage, before being signed into law.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Office announced burial updates and the identification of remains of one soldier, two Marines and one Army Air Forces pilot, who had been missing in action from World War II. Returning home for burial with full military honors are:
- Army Cpl. George P. Grifford, 18, of Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., will be buried June 27 in Arlington National Cemetery. On Nov. 30, 1950, Grifford was a member of the 37th Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division, when his unit was attacked by enemy forces near Kunu-ri, North Korea. It would be later learned he died as a prisoner of war on Feb. 6, 1951. Read more.
- Marine Pfc. James F. Mansfield, 19, of Plymouth, Mass., was assigned to Company K, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, 2nd Marine Division, which landed against stiff Japanese resistance on the small island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands. He reportedly died on the first day of the battle, Nov. 20, 1943. Burial details to come.
- Marine Pvt. Harry K. Tye, 20, of Gallagher, W.Va., was assigned to Company E, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, 2nd Marine Division, which landed against stiff Japanese resistance on the small island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands. He reportedly died on the first day of the battle, Nov. 20, 1943. Burial details to come.
- Army Air Forces Flight Officer Judson B. Baskett, 26, of Harris County, Texas, went missing on Nov. 28, 1946, while piloting a C-47B Dakota aircraft with two other crewmen over Malaysia. He was assigned to the 1305th Army Air Base Unit. Burial details to come.
Senate Passes Defense Bill - Now Must Negotiate with House
The Senate finally managed last week to pass its version of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) after the House had passed its version in May. The NDAA is the legislation that Congress is supposed to pass every year because it sets policy for the Department of Defense.
We have been paying close attention this year because Congress was expected to make changes to the military health care system, which is what they have done in the two versions of the bills passed by the House and Senate. Now, they will establish a conference committee where they must work out differences between the two bills and come up with a single bill.
However, the President has already threatened to veto any bill that takes money out of the fund that is used to pay for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries in the Middle East where the U.S. military is operating. He has threatened to veto the NDAA in previous years and actually did veto it last year.
While the NDAA covers a multitude of areas in the defense budget, the ones we are paying attention to are changes in military health care, in the housing allowance, in the military pay raise, and in veterans preference.
In health care the House bill would raise fees on new service entrants after Jan. 1, 2018. The Senate would raise fees immediately on retirees under age 65. Both versions of the bill restructure Tricare, but they do it in different ways, so that will have to be worked out.
With regard to the housing allowance, the House did not change the current BAH but the Senate would only cover what servicemembers actually pay in rent and also make servicemembers occupying the same residence split the housing allowance.
While the House gives a 2.1 percent pay raise to the troops, the Senate only gives a 1.6 percent pay raise.
Finally, the Senate included in its version a provision that would drastically reduce the advantage veterans have when they apply for employment in the federal government. Veterans preference would still be in effect for getting into federal employment, but it would be gutted for those already in federal employment but seeking another job in the federal government.
Someone has dubbed this the “thank you for your service, but now go away” provision in the Senate bill.
There is no time line set for coming up with one bill but Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R- Ariz.) has said he hopes to have a bill worked out by the time Congress leaves town for its August recess. The Senate bill alone is 1,600 pages long. The House bill is about the same size and given the vast number of subjects covered and the major differences in several of the approaches taken, most observers are skeptical that can actually be done.
We are watching this closely and will be weighing in with the conferees over provisions that are of great concern to us.
Supreme Court Rules that VA Violated Veteran-owned Business Contracting Rule
Last week the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision that said the Department of Veterans Affairs was violating the plain language of the law which said that the VA must set aside more contracts to be filled by veteran-owned small businesses.
The law stated that competition for contracts should be limited to veteran-owned small businesses when the contracting officer concludes that at least two such businesses would bid on the contract and “the award can be made at a fair and reasonable price that offers best value to the United States.” This is known as the “Rule of Two.”
In Kingdomware v. United States, a small veteran-owned business called Kingdomware Technologies was denied the ability to bid on a contract to provide a service that sent emergency information to personnel at four VA medical centers.
The Court of Federal Claims dismissed the suit, and a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the decision. Both courts felt that VA simply had to meet its goal of awarding 12 percent of all contracts to veteran-owned businesses, and that after that they were free to ignore the “Rule of Two.”
The Supreme Court was unanimous that the department has not fulfilled its obligation to steer more business to small companies owned by veterans or service-disabled veterans simply by meeting its annual goal – it was required by law to use the “Rule of Two” at all times.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the law says the department shall award contracts to the veteran businesses under the Rule of Two process. “Unlike the word ‘may,’ which implies discretion, the word ‘shall’ usually connotes a requirement,” he wrote.
The decision is likely to help more veteran-owned businesses compete for the billions of dollars in contracts the department awards.
Veterans Preference Gets Weakened in Senate Defense Bill
When the Senate passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) last week it included a provision that would, if adopted by the House, make Veterans Preference in federal hiring a one-time thing. Veterans would still get an advantage when initially seeking federal government employment but the advantage veterans currently enjoy when seeking other federal jobs once they are already in federal employment would go away.
The House version of the NDAA does not contain this provision so a final position must be negotiated between the two bodies.
Currently, veterans' preference also gives veterans an advantage anytime there is a reduction-in-force. That would also be gone under the Senate provision.
This is important because the federal government is one of the largest employers of veterans in the nation. Almost 1 in 2 people hired into federal jobs are veterans.
According to an article in the Washington Post, this plan was promoted by the Department of Defense. Defense officials reportedly told Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other members of the committee that the pressure to hire veterans is forcing them to pass over non-veterans who would be a better fit for a number of jobs within DoD.
According to the article, Senate aids stated that “…McCain and other committee members are acknowledging privately that it is time for the well-intentioned policy to be tweaked… .” However, when asked about it during a short hallway interview, McCain denied he knew about the policy change in the bill, but said “I’m sure we would never” change the policy.
McCain later issued a statement that said, “We must balance the goals of rewarding those who are eligible for a federal hiring advantage with the needs of the federal government and notably the Department of Defense to attract and hire the best talent for a variety of important national security jobs.”
However, according to the Post article, “Hiring experts said the real problem is not with veterans themselves but with how the preference law is applied.” They say that the top category of candidates “… that hiring managers draw from is often too broad … and can include candidates who are significantly less qualified than others.”
Although only a handful of Senators and Representatives are involved in those final negotiations, we urge you to contact your own Senators and Representative and let them know you oppose any change to the Veterans Preference law. If we make can create enough pressure on all members of Congress the message will get through to those making the final decisions.
News Report Details U.S. Airmen Exposed to Radioactivity in 1966 Spain
Today the New York Times printed an extensive story outlining how numerous U.S. enlisted airmen were exposed to high levels of radioactivity in 1966 when they were sent out to find 4 hydrogen bombs that were missing in Spain after a 1966 B-52 crash. They were not given any protective gear or clothing and told that there was no risk of exposure. But a great many of them have suffered from numerous cancers since that time. To read the complete article and see videos on line click below.
This is another of numerous examples of how military service can harm or destroy one’s health. It also shows why lifetime guaranteed healthcare is more than a fringe employment benefit for military retirees and disabled veterans. It is a fundamental part of a servicemember’s life that must continue to be protected and provided.